You know when you watch old Westerns shoot-outs in a cobblestone town on a hill, where men in denim and cowboy boots tip their hats at the ladies, and old women in long skirts sweep the sidewalk from dust? More than likely you’re picturing Real de Catorce.
Real de Catorce is a perfect Spanish-Mexican-Western (idk what to call it) village that used to be the home of a huge silver mine. When the silver prices dropped, the town was abandoned and was in danger of becoming a ghost town or puebla fantasma. It has since been restored into the perfect Wild Wild West (minus the wild) weekend getaway.
Unfortunately, this town has been heavily associated with peyote and drug tourism, which has been severely misconstrued and taken out of context. Drugs are the farthest thing that should be associated with this town and is so NOT what Real de Catorce is about. Therefore, the following are the top three things to do and the fallacy behind these claims.
Top 3 Things To Do In Real de Catorce
1) Visit the Huitchol Sacred Circle By Horseback
For $20 or 300 pesos, go on a 3.5-hour horseback ride through the green mountains of Real de Catorce. On the way, you’ll pass through the “Puebla Fantasma” or ghost town, which was abandoned when the mines were shut down. The incredible ochre arches against the green mountain scape will surely transport you in time. Continue to climb the mountain, where there are steep drops on all sides, and you just have to trust your horse doesn’t want to kill itself (and you) by making a wrong step and falling off the cliff. I do not recommend this for really young people or really old people. It’s better to just hike.
Finally you end at the top of a mountain shaped like an elephant where there’s a restroom and a store to purchase water. Although the temperature is cool, the sun is also strong due to the altitude. Water is necessary. Here at the top of this elephant shaped mountain is the Huichol sacred circle.
The Huichol people live on the Pacific coast of Mexico but were originally from San Luis Potosi and believe this is where fire originated. Every year, a group of them make a pilgrimage to Real de Catorce to gather a ONE YEAR supply of peyote. Peyote is a hallucinogenic plant used for rituals and shamanism. They then congregate in their sacred circle for days performing peyote-induced rituals. If you see little figurines around the area, it’s the Huichol leaving items to the gods. There is also a shrine that is watched day and night by a designated Huicholi.
The people of Real de Catorce never know when the Huichol pilgrimage takes place and never know how many people are coming. The cowboy guides will take you up the mountain and then just happen upon them when they come. We were told you are allowed to join and get your spirit cleansed if you ask. They were not there when we were, so I have no idea.
2. Ghost Tour
There is a “ghost tour” every weekend where a man will take you on a tour and tell you ghost stories in a cemetery and abandoned mines. You meet at a hotel in the center of town. Ask anyone about it. It starts at 8.
3. “Wheelie” Tour To The Abandoned Mines
This was my absolute favorite thing to do in Real de Catorce!
I wish I could describe to you the feeling of going down a rocky one-lane road on the side of a mountain sitting on top of a rickety old Mad Max jeep, with the looming plunge to your death at any moment. But being completely surround by the contrasts of ochre walls and plush green forest against the blue, blue sky and the outlines of abandoned mines down below make it the most exhilarating experience. I felt so connected to nature and 100% at peace, despite such a perilous position.
The jeep tour cost 1300 pesos or $78 for a 4-5 hour tour. It can fit up to 8 people. The price is also negotiable. The jeep takes you down the mountain to the abandoned mines where you can learn about the mining business that used to dominate the area, and then they take you to the desert and old train stop.
By the train station is where you can go to the desert and find peyote. If you choose to do this, they will advise you to buy or bring fruit to cancel out the bitter taste of the plant that causes people to vomit after ingesting it.
Let’s talk about Peyote
There was an NPR special on how the hallucinogenic plant of peyote was causing drug tourism in the area. That article was also written in 2007. So 10 years later, that was NOT my experience. Here are a few myths I heard before coming here:
Myth- There are a lot of hippie backpackers in Real de Catorce that just want to eat the peyote
There were hippies. I guess, if brown people who drink Starbucks are considered hippies. Wait sorry, REALbucks. They weren’t backpackers. They also weren’t high. They just came for a chilled out vacation.
In addition, while peyote is used as a hallucinogenic, it is also used for respiratory and stomach problems. The entirety of Real de Catorce had so many natural medicinal herbs being sold on the streets, only ONE being peyote.
Finally, I would not call it drug tourism. If anything, participating in the peyote ritual is a spiritual journey, not a bunch of addicts scratching themselves in the street getting high. That’s not what this was and it’s so basic to call it drug tourism. People who participate know exactly what they’re getting into, what they want to get out of it, and how to be respectful.
Myth- The peyote plant is in danger of going extinct and no one should harvest the peyote.
There are six different types of peyote, one of which is in danger of going extinct (at least when I was there, you can check the IUCN Red List for Endangered Species for more up-to-date information). The type that is going extinct grows in the state of Sinaloa and Sonora, not in the state of San Luis Potosi (where Real de Catorce is located) and does not even grow in the desert here.
The species being harvested in the regions of San Luis Potosi has a reported decreasing population over decades, but is not considered endangered. Also, the area of decrease is not the desert of Mexico, but the southwest United States. So I think this has been misinterpreted a lot.
With that said, Mexico has listed the plant as protected and it is illegal for non-indigenous people to harvest the plant as there is a special way to pick it that will allow it to grow back again. You have to cut the plant halfway up so that you’re just eating the top. For this reason, you must hire someone who knows and is qualified to do this. It’d be totally basic to go chopping down peyote on your own.
Also, in order to experience the hallucinogenic affects, you will need to eat multiple plants. Imagine that the Huitchol harvest a lot of peyote. So yes, it grows wild and in large quantities in this area and it’s not that hard to find. I wouldn’t say doing peyote is a bad thing as long as you do so within the respected limits.
So yea, Real de Catorce and drug tourism should never really be said in the same sentence, even though I just said so right there. It’s the view and the Huichol who are the real show-stoppers here.
So…How To Get To Real de Catorce
It’s complicated, but roll with it.
WITHIN MEXICO: From San Luis Potosi (or whichever city you’re in), you must take the del Norte bus line to Matehuala, which costs 247 pesos or $14 and lasts 2 hours. Then from Matehuala, you must take the same line to Real de Catorce, which costs 95 pesos or $6 and it takes 1 hour. This second bus goes down a completely stone road, so it is rickety, and your seat is not guaranteed. Finally, once you arrive at the bottom of Real de Catorce, you must switch to an even smaller bus that can fit through the very tiny tunnel that gives you access to the top. The ride is about 20 minutes. You don’t need to pay for this one, but again, you may be standing because a seat is not guaranteed. If you are claustrophobic, this would be a good time to take a nap. The tunnel is so small that the cars are almost scraping the sides.
Because only a few buses leave from Matehuala to Real de Catorce, make sure to plan your first bus ahead of time. They leave 4 times a day: 8AM, 12 PM, 2PM, 6PM. For example, we had to be on the 8AM Matehuala bus, so we had to take the 3:55 AM bus from San Luis Potosi to Matehuala in order to make it.
On the way out, you’ll need to do the same. But it’s kind of pay as you go, because they oddly didn’t sell us return tickets.
FROM TEXAS: Take the line MYBUS from Dallas, Houston, or San Antonio, and do the same once you get into Mexico.
The Language, What To Pack, and When To Go to Real De Catorce
Spanish is important here.
During the winter they do see snow. It’s very chilly. I would come during warmer months. Either way, bring long pants, a jacket, and socks at any time of year.
The town is full of cowboys and cowboy hats but no need to pack as they sell beautiful Western wear at every store. I definitely would NOT bring heels. The uphill cobblestones are sure to cause sudden death.
Arriving in Real de Catorce
The bus drops you at the base of the market. Here you can find $0.60 or 10 peso gorditas, tacos, all you can eat food stands. Highly recommended. Follow the food stands into the city until you’re walking on cobblestones and looking up at the cutest Western town you’ve ever laid your eyes on.
Where To Stay in Real de Catorce
Ironically, the AirBnBs and hotels are around the same price. After a bad AirBnB experience, Hotel Ruinas del Real took us in for $50/night and offered us a stone suite that opened out to a rooftop terrace and full views of the city. Bonus: hot running water, wifi in the rooms, and free coffee downstairs. This is probably the reason why Julia Robers, Penelope Cruz, and Salma Hayek have all stayed here.
Life and Culture of Real de Catorce
This town is sleepy, yet full of life. It’s the perfect place to bring kids, parents, and a place I definitely plan on returning to. Especially it being so close to Texas!
It’s important to note that the town was named after the 14 Spanish soldiers who were killed by indigenous warriors. Probably because they were busy colonizing them as colonialists do by trying to open up one of the richest silver mines on land used by the original peoples without permission. They might have deserved to die. I’m not sure though….
But Real de Catorce is the farthest thing from a violent place. Actually, what stuck out to me most, besides the incredible views, was how nice and attentive everyone was. For example: asking for directions ended up having some cowboys using their own phones to figure out where I was staying. Then unsolicited, they carried our suitcases up a hill and made sure we were settled before leaving. **heart eyes emoji** Or the time I ordered a hot dish, but waited too long to eat it. The chef saw, and decided to take it upon herself to heat up my food because she didn’t want me to eat it cold. **double heart eyes emoji**
Although politeness is a hallmark of Mexican culture in general, I just felt that super “southern hospitality” of being welcome and taken care of here, making Real de Catorce one of my favorite pueblo magicos in all of Mexico.
Only 10 hours and a $90 bus ticket from Dallas, Texas–or a 3 hour bus ride from San Luis Potosi–this super romantic, quaint, quiet town is great for any age.
And I shall leave you with the dopest video of all time…
Like seriously, those outfits, though…
3 days in Real de Catorce including accommodations, meals, all activities, and RT bus ticket from San Luis Potosi cost $170